Sean Robert Daniels’ original screenplay “Killers” is a taut, finely crafted thriller that won him a 2012 Nicholl fellowship. And for those of you toiling away on spec scripts outside the United States, Sean can be an inspiration for you as he lives 10,364 air miles away from Los Angeles, all the way in Centurion, South Africa.
I will be posting the whole interview over the course of this week.
Today in Part 6, Sean shares some more thoughts about the craft of screenwriting.
Scott: What about dialogue? Do you think writers are born with the ability to write good dialogue or is that something you can learn?
Sean: From what I’ve experienced with my students I can safely say that it is a skill that can be developed. I think the first thing you have to do is listen to other people. A lot. And not just when you are part of the conversation. If I’m at a party I like sitting back and listening to people talk. What fascinates me is something actually Kate and I were talking about since we hung up. An extension of the thing I like about writing women is that if you have the same conversation between two men and you put the exact same lines now between a man and a woman, they talk to each other differently. I love the power relationships of conversations and the history that comes with every conversation, that wonderful subtext.
I like playing the games. Body language is also vital to me. A few years ago we were at a club for New Years Eve and I was a little boastful because I was drunk and I said we can stand on the balcony and I’ll point out to you who is going to hook up with who just based on their body language. I was pretty successful.
Scott: Listening and observing, right?
Sean: Exactly. As you know, you don’t write “she’s happy,” you write “she raises a small smile.” You have to have that ear. You have to tune yourself into listening not to what people are saying precisely but how they’re saying it. As you can see in “Killers,” the woman talks very differently to whoever she’s talking to.
Scott: That’s her job description, that’s her personality for that job.
Sean: That was something I spent a lot of time crossing, I think the most fun dialogue I had writing in that whole script was the conversations between her and her colleagues. Creating that kind of looping dialogue where you’re asking a question and answering a question and asking the third question every time you talk.
Scott: And there’s her back story that we’re sort of privy to that’s playing in the background.
Sean: One of my biggest bugbears with writing is exposition. It’s something that I try and avoid as much as possible. I remember listening to something, I was listening to the commentary on “Constantine,” and I remember them saying that one thing they tried very hard in “Constantine” was, if “Constantine” was in the room with people who knew his world, they didn’t have to talk about his world.
Scott: You get these awkward moments in movies where you know the only reason the exposition is there is because the writer has to get it across to the reader and it feels unauthentic, because it’s not something that would naturally be there in case of the characters.
Sean: I think one of the first things I try to hammer into my students is get rid of the exposition. I think audiences are so smart at being able to fill in the gaps in history and understanding that you don’t need exposition 99 percent of the time.
When I was there in the Nicholl Week, one of the best things about it was spending time with the other finalists. We were really lucky in that seven of us were from out of town and six of us were put up in the same hotel, so we got to spend a lot of time together. I remember one of the things I said to everyone was that one of the best ways that everyone could improve their writing was to spend some time editing films.
Scott: I tell people one of my favorite screenwriting books is “In the Blink of an Eye” by famed film editor Walter Murch.
Sean: Oh, I love Walter Murch.
Scott: It’s a terrific read to look at it from a screenwriting perspective.
Sean: Once you’ve edited a number of films you realize that this whole scene is going to get cut out.
Scott: Yeah, because the viewer can make that connection.
Sean: When I’m rewriting, around not the second draft, but round about the third draft, I start reading it as an editor. I imagine that the script is actually thrown to me as a film now and I’m assembling it as an edit.
That’s how I, sometimes in the case of “Killers”, it was the exact opposite of “Ordinary Lives.” “Ordinary Lives” was constantly cut, cut, cut, cut, whereas with “Killers” it was a case of‑”I need more air here. I need more breath. I need more moments. I need it to be longer.”
Scott: In your Nicholl acceptance speech, you said about “Killers” that quote, “The story is about what happens to people who don’t have the support of family and the damage that can do to you.” When and how did you hit on that theme? How did that influence the writing the story?
Sean: Well, I think, you know, I have to say that I’ve always felt that my family has supported me, so it wasn’t written out of that. But, you know, my parents divorced when I was young and there were moments when obviously they had to take more care of themselves, necessarily, than the children. I mean, they’re wonderful parents, but they’re still human. Some of those moments are amongst the most hurtful that you have to live through. I think I’m very lucky that I’m only, whatever screw‑ups and hang ups I have, I can channel into writing.
I don’t really drag them into other forms of life. And so, to me, I think actually it’s a common theme in a lot of my writing is the absence of family so I can imagine that kind of forced orphan mentality you get when you have to survive purely by yourself.
The thing is, in my view of the world, being by yourself and surviving at the exclusion of others, is dangerous is perhaps too strong a word, but it’s along that line. I mean, you don’t get too many people, you know, it’s always the lone gunman.
If you look at, even that tragedy that occurred in Aurora, I mean, that guy, I can’t remember his name, but if he was, I think, surrounded by a more loving, even just more of a family environment, whether it’s friends or family, he would have probably been driven to less of what he did.
And so, in terms of the script, honestly, I kept asking myself why is everyone in this story so damaged? And it just struck me that, well, family, you know. The woman, clearly, was a toy to be tugged between the two parents. Then, once her father died and she left home, she left all forms of family. I mean, the doctor himself, there’s no hint of any family relationships in his life either. I think it’s that little thing of, if you don’t have support there’s no one there to tell you you’re going wrong.
Scott: I may have a theory for you, why, in part, the ending, that little denouement moment with the old woman might resonate beyond just what’s happening on the surface of this lovely little story about the clouds. In a way, isn’t this old woman in the airplane kind of a projection, a symbolic physicalization of an ideal version of her mother, or a mother sort of basically saying, “It’s OK.” She’s sort of functioning in that level symbolically in some fashion?
Sean: That is a really lovely idea. I like that. I think you’re right there, actually. I mean, she does come across, thinking about it now, almost grandmotherly. And also, I think, now that you mentioned that, it does hit that it’s the only story in the entire film where the only character who actually had a good relationship with her parents, you know, in her story, her father wants her to have that moment of magic, taking her up in the hot air balloon to see the children in the clouds.
Scott: There you go.
Sean: This is the wonderful thing I love about writing, is that, well maybe it’s my style of writing, but, as I said, I really, a lot of where it comes from is my subconscious. Obviously I try to form a hold on what my subconscious is thinking when I’m doing my rewrites. I’m very comfortable with the fact that I’m not always going to get it myself. As long as I know that it fits, I’m happy with that. But I love what you just said there and I think you’re probably closer to the truth than I’ve come before.
Scott: That’s one of the most wonderful things about movies, how they can work on so many different levels, each of us brings our own life experience to them. Plus the writers and the filmmakers, the actors, all these people involved, have given themselves to the story. As a result, a movie can work in multiple layers and multiple levels.
Sean: I guess that goes back to something I said earlier, in that what I try not to give up, is easy answers, and easy solutions to a scene or a character, because, if you do, that leads the audience into only one point of view.
Scott: What’s your actual writing process like?
Sean: For a long time, sadly, it was in bursts. That’s something that, as of next week, I’m making the change into being more organized. I think the reason it was more in bursts was that it was kind of a reflection of my life, in that I mean, I moved houses a lot between 2009 and last year. Last year was the first time I lived in one place for a year, in the last, sort of, five years. I think being unsettled meant that my writing was unsettled, whereas now I’m very happy and very content. And so, what I plan to do, is, again, a bit of a Gene Wolfe thing, is write in the morning. Get up, exercise, write for a few hours, enjoy the day and maybe do some more in the evening.
I liked, when we had the Nicholl Week, Dan Petrie, Jr., gave this wonderful piece of advice, which was, “set aside a time in the day where you stop, even if you’re in mid‑sentence, so that you don’t exhaust your writing mind. And then when you come to the page the next day, you’ve been thinking about what you should have been finished writing the whole day and you can just jump right back into it.”
But, in terms of other little processes, I like writing at home and I like music playing. Quite often I write in the lounge, you know, pop the laptop on the lap and do it there. I have an office but it almost never gets used for writing. It gets used for editing more than anything else.
Scott: What kind of music do you listen to?
Sean: I think it depends. Like, whenever I’m writing, I gravitate to the soundtracks of Thomas Newman.
Scott: “The Shawshank Redemption” is one of my favorite.
Sean: Absolutely. I love that soundtrack. I have pretty much all his soundtracks, so I play them. I do, a little bit, key it to the mood that I’m writing, but if I’m listening to Radiohead or REM, then I’m so familiar with the lyrics that I don’t stop to listen. I find the lyrics of both those bands very inspirational, so they keep me going.
Scott: Do you have any screenwriting principles that are truly fundamental to you?
Sean: It sounds sort of simple but it’s to just tell a damn good story. That’s all I really want. I mean, I set those challenges but I think that each challenge is to make each story its own sort of unique moment. I don’t really want to write something that people would have experienced before. Because I think I’d like to leave that little stamp, that little corner in at least the history of writing of that, “Ah. Whether or not I liked this particular story of his, it was different”.
Scott: So okay, you’ve won this prestigious Nicholl Fellowship made the jump – literally some 10,000 miles – from South Africa into Hollywood. What advice would you offer to aspiring screenwriters from around the world?
Sean: Well, I’ll answer it in a sort of one and a half type of ways. To anyone reading this who is going to enter the Nicholl, one of the most amazing things about the way the Nicholl is judged is that they don’t…I know some screenwriting competitions take the marketability and the potential for a film to be made as part of the judging criteria, and the Nicholl doesn’t. In the letter Gregg sent out to his readers, I think there’s a line in it somewhere that says, “Imagine that you work for a studio that has an unlimited budget and a guaranteed audience.”
So, if you’re reading a film that you know in your heart could never be made, is the writing still good? Anyone here who wants to enter the Nicholl, I would say write from the deepest depths of your passion and don’t consider, necessarily, if a film could or can’t be made. I think, in this particular day and age, the idea of a film, whether it can or can’t be made, is almost irrelevant with the powers we have in terms of visual effects and things like that.
So, I think it’s to really stick true to yourself. I mean, something I say to my students that, and I know this seems almost like I’m countering what I said a moment ago, but don’t try and be unique. Be yourself, because you and yourself are unique.
That concludes my interview with Sean Robert Daniels. Please stop by comments to thank Sean for taking the time for the interview and post any follow-up questions you may have.
To see Sean’s acceptance speech at the Nicholl Fellowship ceremony, go here.
For Part 1 of the interview, go here.
For Part 2, go here.
For Part 3, go here.
For Part 4, go here.
For Part 5, go here.
Sean is represented by Kaplan/Perrone.